WINK

Wink, Joshua de Jesus

Joshua de Jesus as Wink

We braved the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit/Penn Station debacle last Sunday to go into New York to see an off-off-(perhaps a third off is needed here, I’m not sure)-Broadway play in which our nephew-in-law is appearing.

It was fun to rub elbows with intrepid theater-goers, trying a performance that might be a little risky, perhaps hoping for something a little risqué and figuring out which cast member they are related to. The play is Neil Koenigsberg’s WINK, directed amiably by Ron Beverly, and playing at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, just south of 10th Street through May 7.

Since we’d allowed so much extra time for train delays, we had ample time for a long cross-town walk and fortification with blood marys at the bar across the street from the theater, where a baby shower was in full swing.

The cast did a terrific job (nephew-in-law included), but the play itself is problematic. It takes place in Hollywood today, and its major conflict is between the desire of a teenage character, the eponymous Wink, to not declare a gender—“I’m just Wink”—and the determination of a Hollywood agent to find out. If Koenigsberg—a former Hollywood public relations luminary-turned-playwright—had set the play in 1950 or somewhere other than Hollywood, this obsession might be more believable. The gender identity wars are being fought on different ground.

A good reason to see this play, though, is to see Joshua de Jesus as Wink. He does a heartfelt job on territory that’s pretty well trodden. Joe Maruzzo is engaging as a past-his-prime actor, Jose Joaquin Perez is a homeless counselor, and Nikole Williams a public relations consultant struggling with how to describe Wink and getting no help from anyone. The awful agent is our nephew, Joe Isenberg.

As Director Beverly told me after the show, “Joe has to be willing to be not liked,” and he paraphrased a reviewer who said, “you may not like this character, but you can admire Joe’s portrayal.” We did! And we liked all the do-wop music too.

Red Velvet – Weekend Theater Treat!

Red Velvet cast

Lindsay Smiling & Sofia Jean Gomez

Hop on New Jersey Transit’s Morristown line or jump into your car and speed out to Madison to see Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Red Velvet, on stage through September 25. It’s a knockout! Directed here by STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, Red Velvet was the breakout success for London playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in 2012, was nominated for numerous awards, and garnered two “Best New Playwright” awards for the author.

Based on a true story, Red Velvet describes the career of Ira Aldridge (played by Lindsay Smiling), an African-American actor who relocated to Europe in search of artistic and personal freedom. In 1833, he was invited to play the title role in Othello at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden. While audiences loved him, the critics were merciless, and he never played London again.

Actor Charles Kean (David Andrew Macdonald) refuses to perform with Aldridge and derides his more natural, emotionally true, and modern acting style. Charles’s fiancée, Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), understands and immediately adopts Aldridge’s approach. The play’s first act contains highly entertaining scenes in which the Aldridge style is contrasted with the affected, melodramatic style then in vogue, concluding with a key bit from Othello that demonstrates his technique’s tremendous power.

In the second act, the devastating reviews are in, and the conflict between Aldridge and his friend Pierre (David Foubert), who manages the company, comes to a dramatic, wrenching climax. Aldridge won’t temper his performance and the critics (and theatre backers) won’t countenance it. Chakrabarti has said the play is about personal fulfillment in the theater (never guaranteed), disillusionment, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It is, and all within an invigorating package.

The Covent Garden debacle takes place against the backdrop of England’s raging abolition debate. Red Velvet’s younger characters think slavery abhorrent; the older ones that cheap labor is the foundation of British prosperity. Further, though Aldridge and the younger actors believe “all theater is essentially political,” the others believe casting a black actor as Othello is going too far. Chakrabarti does not turn the play into a polemic, but provides useful context.

In real life, after the Covent Garden debacle, Aldridge became a much- admired tragedian and toured Europe extensively. Thus, Red Velvet begins and ends in a theater dressing-room in Łódź, Poland, in 1867, as a 60-year-old Aldridge prepares to play King Lear—in whiteface. Invading his privacy, a young Polish journalist (Sofia Jean Gomez) is determined to interview him; she makes the same plea for acceptance he might have made in earlier times. At one point, he caresses the red backdrop, musing that the velvet is like a “deep promise of what is to come.”

The cast members noted above were uniformly strong and received good support from Garrett Lawson, John Little, Shannon Harris, and Savannah DesOrmeaux.

STNJ provides an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

Remembrance Day

poppy poppies Beefeater London

A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

The ushers give you a red paper poppy along with your program for this production of “Remembrance Day,” the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the English—Americans, too—remember their war dead. We call it Veterans Day, emphasizing the identity of the dead, rather than the obligations of the living.

Eighty-year-old war bride Nancy Ballinger has returned to England for a visit, carrying a memorial wreath, and she names two men in her prayer “oh, and even my husband.” We don’t know who the men are, but in the course of this one-hour, one-woman production, we find out. And a lot more besides.

Remembrance Day was written and performed by June Ballinger, Nancy’s daughter, now Passage Theatre’s artistic director. Nancy tells us how much June has pestered her for the secrets of her past, pre-America life, especially the war work she did at Bletchley Park, Mr. Churchill’s treasure-house of secrets. While we may not learn in great detail what she did, we find out much about who she was.

Ballinger, the actor, moves convincingly at all the ages she portrays, and her director keeps her moving. One hour, no intermission, and interest never flags. Her mother’s character wonders how she will be remembered, when so much essential to herself she felt required to keep to herself. This play, her “remembrance day,” is full of compassion, understanding, and abundant love.

Remembrance Day is one of six one-actor plays being performed at Trenton’s Passage Theatre through March 20 in its “Solo Flights Festival.” It will be repeated Sunday, March 20, 3 pm. I’ve heard rave reviews about two of the others: Manchild in the Promised Land and Panther Hollow. Check Passage’s website for the schedule

Still Dreaming

Bottom, Misummer Night's Dream

Harold Cherry as Bottom in “Still Dreaming”

In the documentary film Still Dreaming, a dozen residents of an assisted living residence take on a very challenging six-week task—to learn and perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most are Broadway stage veterans—actors, dancers and musicians—who reside at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Despite frailties such as decreased vision, dementia, and depression, they eagerly take on demanding roles.

Filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller say they “discovered a group of people who have spent their whole lives following their dreams, some wildly successful, and some hardly at all. And here they are, retired, supposedly having given it all up. What we witnessed was an awakening, and it was truly profound and most certainly inspiring.”

Several of the performers are particularly engaging. Charlotte Fairchild, who plays Puck, had leading roles in Damn Yankees and 42nd Street and was the understudy to Angela Lansbury in Mame. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot retain much, but she still has a strong, clear soprano voice and finds joy in her portrayal. Dimo Condos, who plays Theseus/Oberon, is an eccentric, solitary man who studied with Uta Hagen, Elia Kazan, and Harold Klurman at the renowned Actors Studio. He is a bully, impatient with cast members who don’t remember their lines or lose their place. But he retains the ability to immerse himself in character and involve the audience.

Joan Stein, the production’s pianist, is literally bent over the piano stool, but adds punch and panache to the show. She was a pianist on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, among other credits. Her playing becomes more vigorous and emphatic as the rehearsals progress. Aideen O’Kelly bows out of the production because she cannot see the script well enough to learn her lines. During her Broadway career, she appeared in Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer (a production your website host Vicki Weisfeld saw in Washington, D.C.). Now she must watch from the sidelines.

In Midsummer, as in real life, “people live in colliding worlds of reality, illusion, and delusion” and they also may “age into some degree of dementia in which memories blur and the present becomes a slippery slope,” suggested Eric Minton in a review of the film on Shakespeareances.com. This turn of mind is why the setting for Still Dreaming, which at first seems so odd, turns out to be so right.

The full-length feature film is currently doing well on the festival circuit, most recently screening at the Sedona Independent Film Festival. The filmmakers hope that this exposure brings opportunity for wider distribution. Learn more at the Still Dreaming website. Reportedly, it will become available on DVD in April.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is gearing up for a new baseball season!

 

Equivocation

GunpowderPlot, quills

(artwork: Scott McKowen for STNJ)

Regrettably, this review comes after the run of Equivocation by award-winning playwright Bill Cain has ended at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Still, I hope you’ll watch for this sharply witty and thought-provoking play locally or, if you’re from the NJ-NY region, will take a good look at STNJ’s future offerings. They’re having a terrific season.

It’s 1606, King James I is on the English throne (one of the country’s Scottish kings), and he has written a story. Powerful Prime Minister Sir Robert Cecil asks Shag (Shakespeare) to turn the king’s story into a play, with the promise of considerable reward to the Globe theater company if he is successful, and, if he is not, well . . . best not dwell on the details.

The story deals with the very recent event known as The Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic men tunneled under Parliament, smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder, and would have blown up the king, his family, many notables, and the whole House of Lords on Parliament’s opening day. A mysterious letter alerts the king, and the plot is foiled. A man named Guy Fawkes is caught, and the plotters, whose names are gradually extracted via torture, are hideously murdered. Cecil knows a dramatization by Shag will fix the treasonous details about the powder plot in the memory of history.

While the theater company is overjoyed by the prospect of a royal commission, Shag resists writing about current-day events, especially as he comes to doubt the truth of the official version. The risks of being truthful are grimly evident, yet he won’t write a lie.

But what is a lie? The arrest of Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who wrote a book called Equivocation, brings this question to light. The priest asks his inquisitor, “If the king were in your house, and his enemies came to your door asking if he were there, would you say ‘yes’—and betray him—or would you say ‘no’—a lie?” Equivocation, the priest tells Shag, allows you to look at the question behind the question. And the real question in this instance is, “May I come in and kill the king?” And the answer is “no.” This is the key to resolving Shag’s struggle with the king’s powder plot story, too.

Cain’s play is deeply interesting historically, politically, religiously, theatricallly, and, as director Paul Mullins said in a post-show discussion, if you want to see it as current-day political allegory, “that’s OK, too.” At the same time it’s fast-moving, full of action, humor, and clever ripostes. Only six cast members play all the parts—many of them taking on 10 or more roles—and yet the staging was so expertly managed and so well acted that who they were playing was perfectly clear, moment to moment. This production had some shocking special effects too.

STNJ newcomers this year Matthew Stucky as Sharpe (a player, the King, plotter Wintour, etc.) and Dominic Comperatore as Nate (a player, Cecil, etc.), and long-time company utility infielder Kevin Isola as Armin (a player, a witch, states’ attorney, Lady Macbeth, etc.) deserve special mention, though all performances were strong.

Regarding The Gunpowder Plot, the program notes say, “The only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.” Accepted at face value for centuries, the government’s story has elicited more recent doubts, and even Parliament’s official website suggests the plot might have been the work of agents-provocateurs who wanted to discredit the Jesuits and cement the Protestant religion in the land.

Weekend Double-Play

The Guardsman

Jon Barker, Victoria Mack, The Guardsman, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Jon Barker & Victoria Mack in STNJ’s The Guardsman

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) continues its 2015 season—a celebration of Bonnie J. Monte’s 25th season as artistic director—with another play about actors, this one The Guardsman, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. In it, a young actor begins to suspect his wife is tiring of him and pretends to be a member of the Royal Guard—he can do wigs and costumes after all—to see whether she’ll be tempted. At the end, it seems he’s learned more about himself than he has about her constancy.

The play has many laugh-out-loud moments as the actor struggles to maintain two personas at the same time. Should he be flattered that the actress seems attracted to the dashing guardsman, or offended? He’s both, alternatingly. Talented company regular Jon Barker conveys every bit of this confusion with his expressive body language. Victoria Mack as his wife plays a more opaque character, and in the talk-back at the end, the audience was divided about whether she saw through his disguise. Brent Harris was excellent as the Critic, who is the foil to both actors’ longings.

The play has been mounted several times in English, and is usually played as romantic farce, but Monte believes its frivolous exterior has obscured darker messages at its heart. To pursue this line of thought, she obtained a new literal translation by the playwright’s great-grandson and used that for her adaptation. She found it has “an extraordinary provocative, ground-breaking, heart-breaking, and disturbing inner core” that provokes gales of laughter at the same time it “questions identity, reality, perception and what it takes to validate our existence.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

On Sunday, we saw Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his many comedies about romantic confusion, this year’s outdoor stage production by the STNJ. Excellent comedic performances by the entire cast. I had both my sun and rain umbrellas with me, though the threatened rain never materialized. These productions are always a highlight of the summer, and the cast manages not to faint in the heat, despite their elaborate costumes and the play’s lively staging, including running up the stairs of the amphitheater at the College of St. Elizabeth.

outdoor theater, STNJ

Set for the outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, STNJ

Coming Up Next

Yesterday was the last performance for both these plays, a successful continuance of this anniversary season. Next up: Shaw’s Misalliance, August 5 – 30, in which Shaw “gleefully exposes and dismantles the idiosyncrasies of the British classes and their various ‘family values.’”

Also, some critics believe The Guardsman inspired Harold Pinter’s The Lover, whose similar plot likewise melds comedy and drama and has been played both ways. STNJ will have a reading of The Lover on Monday evening, August 17, to explore those possibilities.

Flight

Flight_film_poster_convertedNetflixed this 2012 movie (trailer) on the recommendation of a friend, and she was right that Denzel Washington gives a strong, persuasive performance as the alcohol- and drug-addicted airline pilot, Whip Whitaker. The first half-hour of the film, when his airliner gets in trouble, is “the finest and most terrifying plane crash sequence ever committed to film,” says The Atlantic (you can see the crash scene here).

John Goodman, as Whitaker’s dealer, is congenially over-the-top as only Goodman can do it. Just a bit obvious when he sashays in with the Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” in the background. Excellent performances also by Kelly Reilly, as Whitaker’s drug-addict girlfriend, Bruce Greenwood as the airline pilots’ union rep, and Don Cheadle as the lawyer the union hires.

Thankfully, director Robert Zemeckis and writer John Gatins chose not to include a lengthy and harrowing detox segment, which movies about addiction so often include (Ray, for example). I especially liked the solid contributions from the supporting cast—Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, and Brian Geraghty, in particular.

Real pilots, of course, find much to quarrel with—or laugh at—in the flying sequences, but they are not the point of the movie, anyway. They’re there to get your attention. If you’ve seen the movie, you might find this pilot’s assessment amusing (contains spoilers). The Atlantic piece objects to the theme that “a miracle” landed the plane, but I understood that it was Whitaker’s creativity, skill and nerve, even when impaired, that accomplished it. What other characters thought was what they thought. And, yes, some people do talk about miracles and “God’s hand,” because that’s the way they see the world.

If you missed this movie the first time around, for fine acting and an engaging plot, it’s worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%; audience ratings 75%.

Two Days of Theater Bliss!

library, Morgan Library

Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

Spent two days in Manhattan this week and highly recommend these highlights. First up was a walk from the train to the Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue), a treasure-trove of art and the written word, in which lots is always going on. This visit was to see the special exhibit “Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation,” which includes many original documents Lincoln wrote, with helpful context. Take the docent tour.

This exhibit is on view only through June 7, but afterward the library will be putting on “Alice: 150 years of Wonderland” (June 26-October 11). For the first time in 30 years, the British Library will send the original Alice in Wonderland manuscript to New York, and its display will be augmented by original drawings, letters, and other material. Another good reason to visit the Morgan—a terrific café! Order the duck confit salad. I had a Gilded Age Manhattan, which had flakes of gold floating on its surface—irresistible in that fabulous mansion—and needed an afternoon nap.

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

In the evening, thrilled beyond words, we saw Helen Mirren in The Audience, where she reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II. Each week, the monarch has a half-hour private audience with the current Prime Minister, to learn what the government has been up to for the past week and what’s ahead. Mirren’s portrayal of the Queen over the years—from the time of her accession at age 25 to age 89 today—is completely believable. The Queen always backs the government, but that has not always been easy or comfortable. And the government hasn’t always served her well, in terms of candor or protecting her principal leadership interest, the health of the Commonwealth.

If you know or remember anything at all about the dozen political leaders who have served her—from Winston Churchill up through a prickly Margaret Thatcher to today’s David Cameron—you will enjoy these different portrayals. Sets and costumes were perfect. We may think of the Queen is being a bit bland of affect and possibly not as full of terrific one-liners that playwright Peter Morgan gives her (in the first scene, PM John Major confesses, “I only ever wanted to be ordinary,” and the Queen sympathizes: “And in which way do you consider you’ve failed in that ambition?”). But Mirren brings her to well-rounded life, and Morgan even gives her a rationalization for this persona, writing that a monarch’s very ordinariness is what makes for success. Mirren’s line is something like “if we were tremendously creative or brilliant, we’d be tempted to meddle, and that would cause no end of trouble.”

St. Patrick's, cathedral, New York, stained glass

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Wednesday morning, out for a stroll, we found St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the throes of a monumental restoration effort. The exterior where the work has been completed must appear as it did when it was first constructed, with all the grime cleared away from stones and stained glass, and, more important, but invisibly, many structural repairs made. Absolutely beautiful.

Inside, the work continues as well, and the altar is obscured by a mare’s nest of scaffolding. A bit cacophanous, but the completed parts are truly spectacular.

Lunch at my favorite NYC spot, where I’ve eaten so many times, Osteria al Doge at 142 W. 44th Street, a half-block from Times Square. Lovely food and service.

Wolf Hall , playAs if we hadn’t had enough excitement already, off to the Winter Garden Theatre for Part Two of Wolf Hall (Part One reviewed here). I suppose it isn’t too great a spoiler to say that Anne and Cardinal Wolsey’s antagonists get their comeuppance. Though Mark Ryland’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the tv version seems perfect, Ben Miles is mighty fine in the play, too (a comparison). I enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s books, on which these dramatizations are based, and like both versions. Again, I was struck by the efficiency of the stage play, with its stark set and minimal props, which has a powerful focusing effect.

See The Audience and both parts of Wolf Hall, if you have the chance! But soon. Limited engagements.

Wolf Halls

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

A lot of Wolf Hall for one weekend–the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, and on Sunday, the first episode of the BBC’s 6-part television version. Author Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and part II of her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (on stage later this spring), edited and reportedly likes both rather similar versions.

Having enjoyed these books, I felt well prepared for their intricate power politics, not to mention the confusing English naming conventions, in which the Duke of Norfolk is sometimes called “Norfolk” and sometimes by his given name, Thomas Howard (all anyone needs to know is that in any Henry VIII story, Norfolk is never a good guy). But the theater audience was on the ball, got the jokes, followed the plot, and enjoyed the show terrifically. I know I did. Of course, Mantel’s narratives (combined, almost 950 pages) were stripped down for both stage and tv, yet the essentials powerfully remained.

On stage, the leads were Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn). Miles’s Cromwell comes on slowly, but strongly. After his mentor Cardinal Wolsey is exiled, he finds a place at Henry’s court by following the advice “Stand in his light until he can’t help but notice you.” But Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, and the nobility never let him forget it.

He makes himself indispensable at every turn, particularly when it comes to the King’s Great Matter: having his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he is free to marry Anne Boleyn—partly out of lust and partly in the quest for a male heir. Here’s where the politics get dicey. England and Catherine are Catholic, and the Pope won’t agree to ending the marriage. Henry’s rupture with Rome over this issue led to formation of the Church of England, with him at its head. The split occurred in the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation, supported by Anne. For some, this was heresy, and heretics risked burning.

Catherine won’t agree to an annulment, in large part because it would make her daughter Mary a bastard. Anne presses for her daughter Elizabeth to head the line of succession. Eventually, Henry tires of Anne’s badgering and . . . oh, wait. That’s Bring Up the Bodies, coming to theaters later this spring and to tv later in the series.

Meanwhile, in the television version, accomplished actor Mark Rylance is Cromwell, skinny Damian Lewis, wearing a hugely padded costume, is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn. In only an hour, the seeds of the controversy are laid, and we haven’t heard much from Catherine, Henry, and Anne yet. Rylance, too, is a taciturn Cromwell, though you have the impression he misses nothing.

In the theatrical version, the costumes are lush, but the set was beyond minimal, no time for shifting setting in the fast-paced scene-changes. Yet I didn’t feel deprived. This minimalism allowed the drama to dominate. Switching to the tv version, it’s obvious how much time is spent walking from room to room and place to place when sets are involved. Both versions: time well spent.

Baskerville

Baskerville, McCarter

Lucas Hall & Gregory Wooddell in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville

In the fan fic spirit I wrote about yesterday, the current production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Baskerville, is a yet another take on the perennial Sherlock Holmes favorite.

Playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this version as a romp through the moors. Aside from the commercial differences with fan fic, another difference–and one that weakens the show–is that it so closely follows the original tale (“canon” in the fan fic vocab). Ludwig doesn’t have the freedom for farce of his Lend me a Tenor or Moon over Buffalo. Though it lacks fic’s mind-bending flights of fantasy, the production is massively entertaining, nonetheless, and no doubt some audiences prefer a retelling versus a reimagining.

The two main characters are ably played by Lucas Hall (Dr. Watson), who has the occasional chance to mug at the audience when encountering some particular absurdity, and Gregory Wooddell (Holmes). Ludwig has written both of these parts mostly as foils for the other actors, and they often come across as excessively bland. All the other characters, whether playing significant roles or walk-ons, whether servants or opera stars, whether German or Castilian, are played by Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek, and Michael Glenn. This calls for manic pacing and lightning fast costume changes, which become part of the fun. Can they do it? Pfitsch calculates that during a week of this production she makes 200 costume changes.

An early decision was to make this a fully costumed show, giving every character a full outfit, as if they were on stage for twenty minutes, not two. Costume “stations” are set up all around backstage, and a specific costume is positioned where a player will exit or enter. Often two costumers help get the old off and the new on—sometimes over the old outfit, sometimes as the character is walking. Michael Glenn wears the same shirt throughout, but has individual neckties for each character he plays. With no time to tie them, the secret is magnets.

The crew that enables all the costume changes and special effects to occur precisely on time deserves special recognition. The production makes full use of McCarter’s generous under-stage traproom with its elevators and hoses for smoke and fog effects and has other surprises in store.

Baskerville is a co-production with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, and although it was rehearsed and the effects all mapped out here in Princeton, it played in D.C. first. You don’t have much time: It closes March 29. Tickets here.